300: Rise of an Empire

Posted by Joel Copling on March 10, 2014

I may be in the minority on this, but 2007's "300" was an unadulterated highlight of a magnificent year in film, the best big-budget entertainment of the entirety of those 12 months. Ingloriously violent and stunningly beautiful to behold, Zack Snyder's film (still his magnum opus, in my humble opinion) and its creative success ironically and fittingly are prophetic of the same success afforded its immediate sequel. "300: Rise of an Empire," adapted from Frank Miller's graphic novel "Xerxes," is ragingly, ravishingly, savagely poetic blockbuster film-making of a high order, the first truly great film of 2014 and a high bar against which all other blockbusters that succeed it might be judged. Even the screenplay, written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, approaches this operatic material with an unusual level of grace. It rarely pauses in the midst of orgiastic bloodshed, but when it does, one can be blessed with real dramatic heft.

Simultaneously a prequel, sequel, and narrative companion of its predecessor, "300: Rise of an Empire" proves its epic ambitions early: King Leonidas and three hundred brave soldiers vanquished at the hands of the God-King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his army. Shortly thereafter, his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), mourns his sacrifice, and warrior Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) becomes a legend by killing King Darius (Igal Naor), the leader of the Persian army. King Darius' military leader, a ruthless woman named Artemisia (Eva Green), vows revenge when she learns that it was Themistokles' arrow that pierced her king's heart.

In a complex narrative that avoids convolution and cleanly tells its story in multiple time frames (before, after, and during the events of "300"), we also learn of Xerxes' and Artemisia's separate motivations for battle. Xerxes was King Darius' son, emotionally destroyed by his father's death and manipulated by the calculating Artemisia to wander into a magical lake that transforms him into the golden-glazed, eight-foot God-King which he is known for being. Artemisia, meanwhile, is of Greek blood, but her heart, she opines while slicing off a captor's head not-so-quickly, is Persian: As a child, she was subjected to the rape and murder of her people and then trained in combat by a sympathetic Persian general.

These two tidbits about the film's major antagonists are crucial insights into their battle-hardened minds. This is a brutal world that director Noam Murro has so meticulously crafted with his cinematographer Simon Duggan, production and costume designers, and makeup and visual effects artists, and it is a brutal affair in which Themistokles and Artemisia are engaged. The violence, by the way, is considerable, largely consisting of CG blood but neither less brutal nor more tame because of the pixelization. But the bruised soul behind the violence--that these "bad guys" are just as wearworn as our heroes--is what sets it apart from the usual medieval-set epic. There is no black-and-white treatment of one side and the other; both have seen their fair share of brutality, and both have come out the other side with their own perceptions. Even Artemisia's necessary comeuppance is tinged with a final respite for her--a moment in which she savors what Queen Gorgo calls "the wind of vengeance" and a certainty of the mortality from which she so longed to escape.

Themistokles, meanwhile, is far from a dull lead hero. Unexpectedly vulnerable and haunted by a decision not to kill Xerxes when he had the chance, Stapleton plays him only as broadly as the broadest scenes of pre-combat pep talks ask of him. Otherwise, this is a strong performance more than it is a series of manly poses (For the record, though, it is effective as that series of poses). But good though he and Rodrigo Santoro, seriously creepy as Xerxes, are, this is film that belongs performance-wise to Green, who eats up every second of her screen time in ways that might just make Johnny Depp jealous. This is a meaty and muscular villain role one scene away from being the lead, and Green's portrayal is beyond intoxicating and certainly perfect. The Academy would be remiss to exclude her, which is likely why it will.

But the bread-and-butter of "300" was its immense bloodletting, and so it goes that this first sequel absolutely delivers in that arena. The slow-motion cuts of the first film (and, indeed, of Snyder's subsequent efforts) have carried over to this sequel, and they are so perfectly utilized here as to make sense of potentially chaotic action sequences. Graceful and stylish without being the center of the film in which they are featured, these cuts work wonders to bring a sense of awe to this imagery, nearly experimental in nature. In all of its attempts, in fact, "300: Rise of an Empire" is magnificent entertainment, but it's the breathtaking moments of dramatic clarity and even exposition that lift the film from the shackles of empty-headed bombast and into a kind of euphoric nirvana for filmgoers who want for a brain with their perfectly executed action tropes.

Film Information

Sullivan Stapleton (Themistokles), Eva Green (Artemisia), Lena Headey (Queen Gorgo), Hans Matheson (Aesyklos), Rodrigo Santoro (Xerxes), Jack O'Connell (Calisto), David Wenham (Dilios), Callan Mulvey (Scyllias), Andrew Tiernan (Ephialtes), Ben Turner (General Artaphernes), Igal Naor (King Darius), Andrew Pleavin (Daxos), Caitlin Carmichael (Artemisia at 8), Jade Chynoweth (Artemisia at 13).

Directed by Noam Murro and written by Zack Snyder and Kurt Johnstad, based on the graphic novel "Xerxes" by Frank Miller.

Rated R (sustained stylized bloody violence throughout, sex, nudity, language).

102 minutes.

Released on March 7, 2014.